It’s been a couple of growing seasons since the Enchanted Garden at Howard County’s Miller Branch Library has taken root, its trees and bushes branching, perennials spreading, annuals blossoming and edibles bursting with nutrients and flavor.
Developed next to the children’s area of the library, its total space may consist of a mere quarter-acre, but Oasis Design Group, Live Green Landscape Associates LLC and many volunteers have managed to tuck in some 65 varieties of woody and perennial plants plus varying annuals, benches for relaxation and contemplation, a pond, a stream and even a couple of sculptures.
It was almost two years from the plan — sketched on a napkin by county library president and CEO Valerie Gross, development specialist Rita Hamlet and Lisa Regnante, a volunteer interested in healthy eating — to the grand opening of the Enchanted Garden in May 2012. Hamlet, raised among tomatoes and compost, goats and bees, and more recently having established the Howard County Conservancy’s community garden, was just the one to lead the project to completion.
Since then, “everything has grown, including the programming,” reports Vicki Goodman, library system publicity specialist. The garden’s mission has always been to educate as well as to delight the senses.
But little of the educating would go on without garden coordinator and instructor Ann Hackeling, a former Wilde Lake Middle School special education teacher who says she “grew a good group of volunteers,” from fellow Master Gardeners to enthusiastic library customers. In a grand effort last fall, these greenthumbs planted 600 flowering bulbs. They also variously weed, water or offer year-round classes in or about the natural environment.
The biggest hit — and biggest surprise — of last season was the discovery of monarch butterfly chrysalises near the milkweed where they were attracted to lay eggs.
“Last summer we had a program on beneficial insects and pollinators and we added butterfly weed in two spots” (not butterfly bush, Hackeling specifies, but a kind of milkweed the larvae require for food) “and we got monarch butterflies!” she says, sounding as enthusiastic as the children who discovered their developing chrysalises when cornstalks were being cut for Halloween decorations.
That experience was definitely the highlight of the season for volunteer Janice Winter, too. The Ellicott City Master Gardener teaches a fourth- and fifth-grade Tween Sprout group, which was able to closely examine the development of two cocoons brought indoors when their host plant was cut. Winter herself was charmed by the beautiful light-green structures striped with gold.
While horticultural topics are a given, another Enchanted Garden specialty is nutrition, with a focus on eating healthful, locally grown foods.
The Pizza and Peter Rabbit gardens (the latter, in the spirit of continued interest and crop rotation is now replaced by a Rainbow garden — did you know carrots also come in purple?) have been fun and tasty ways for little ones to learn hands-on where food and herbs come from and how to grow them. The library’s “explorer packs” include a hand lens, scavenger hunt activity and recipes to try at home.
Enchanted Gardeners concentrate on our native plant species, which grow already adapted to the conditions where they live and thus are easier to care for. Black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, aster, chokeberry, iris, St. John’s wort, holly and turtlehead are thriving in the garden, Hackeling reports. The latter is a favorite of Maryland’s own state butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, which goes to show another reason that growing indigenous species does matter.
Master Gardener and volunteer Pat Greenwald of Sykesville has coordinated programs from back in the “old Miller” days, “but now it’s so much more exciting. We can go out and observe what we’re talking about,” she says.
Members of a Girl Scout troop Greenwald was helping to earn a badge spotted some more of the Monarch chrysalises — only fitting because it was in her home greenhouse that the milkweed was propagated in the first place.
Of course, garden programming is not just for little ones — meditation and senior outdoor painting classes, for instance, could hardly have a more pleasant venue.
Library staff members have gotten into the spirit too, says Hamlet, recycling food scraps in the staff lounge for compost and learning about the nutritional value of pizza, not to mention distributing the new Enchanted Garden Field Guide so visitors will know what’s growing there and why it was selected for planting.
Soon Hackeling and Kelli Shimabukuro of the library staff and garden advisory panel will attend a Maryland Libraries conference to discuss how the whole plan was carried out.
As for Hamlet, who believes the garden contributed to the county system’s award as Library Journal/Gale Library of the Year in 2013, her work continues on the administrative side, and when she comes to the garden it’s usually incognito.
“I get to anonymously observe all the ways people enjoy the space — writing on a laptop, enjoying the stream, showing kids the tomatoes,” she says. But that doesn’t mean her Wellies are never on the ground. When subbing for one of the harvesters, for example, she watched a group of 3-year-olds pull carrots.
“Their faces just lit up when they pulled the green top and up came an orange carrot,” she says. “One little boy ran to his mom and asked, ‘Can we come here every day?’ Those are the moments I love.”
June 5 The Beauty and Benefits of Herbs – learn how homegrown herbs can deter common garden pests and clean house without harsh detergents
June 26 Fermented Foods for Good Taste and Health – discover basic nutritional benefits of fermented food
July 17 Fall Vegetable Gardening – extend the growing season for greens and root veggies
Aug. 7 Bugs in the Garden – only 1 percent of insects are pests; learn which are which in your garden
Aug. 16 Crop Swap – trade in your excess fruit and veggies; leftovers will be donated to the Howard County Food Bank
And one evening a month, performers from local schools will present Music in the Garden. Check the library system’s website at hclibrary.org for details.